Theodor Adorno Introduction - Essay

Theodor Wiesengrund


Theodor Adorno 1903-1969

(Full name Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno) German philosopher, sociologist, musicologist, and critic.

Adorno is widely considered to have been the most brilliant member of the Frankfurt School, a group of sociologists and psychologists organized formally as the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a privately endowed center for Marxist studies that was founded after the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s.

Biographical Information

Adorno was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1903. His father, Oscar Wiesengrund, was a wealthy wine merchant of Jewish descent, and his mother, Maria Calvelli-Adorno, was a well-known professional singer of German-French-Genoese parentage. As a child Adorno was quiet and intensely intellectual. He was strongly influenced by the many singers and musicians who frequented his parents' house and hoped to become a composer. At the University of Frankfurt, however, Adorno studied philosophy, psychology, and sociology as well as musicology. After earning his doctorate in philosophy in 1925, he moved to Vienna to study musical composition, but he was bitterly disappointed to find that he lacked the talent to succeed. However, while in Vienna, Adorno began to contribute essays and reviews to various Viennese journals, and he soon established himself as a knowledgeable, original, and perceptive critic and philosopher of music, as well as a champion of avant-garde composers. The range of his critical writings soon widened to include literature, aesthetics, and culture in general, while his approach to the arts, under the influence of his friend Walter Benjamin, became increasingly sociological and political. In 1928 Adorno returned to Frankfurt and the University. A few years later he began his long friendship with Max Horkheimer, who was director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research from 1930 to 1958. Adorno did not at first become a member of the Institute, which moved first to Geneva and then to the United States after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Instead, Adorno went to Merton College, Oxford, to study philosophy and then to Princeton University in the United States. In 1938 he became head of music studies at the Institute's Office of Radio Research at Princeton. In 1941, when Horkheimer moved to California because of ill health, Adorno followed, becoming part of a brilliant expatriate community that included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Alfred Doeblin. Adorno served as co-director and theoretician of the most famous of the Institute's American projects, the Research Project on Social Discrimination, from 1944 to 1949. That year the Institute moved back to Frankfurt, and nine years later Adorno succeeded Horkheimer as director. At the same time he became professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt, into which the Institute was incorporated. The Frankfurt School had by that time ended its connections with orthodox Marxism, and was disillusioned with both the Soviet Union and the industrial working class. In the postwar years it functioned primarily as a center of academic sociology, where Adorno and Horkheimer passed on to their students what they had learned of empirical social science in the United States. Through the 1950s and 1960s Adorno published widely on a variety of topics, including music, philosophy, literature, and popular culture. In the late 1960s the Institute's offices were frequently invaded by students protesting its misperceived conservatism. In April of that year three politically radical female students entered Adorno's classroom, bared their breasts, mocked him with flowers and kisses, and finally declared him dead as an institution. Adorno was horrified by the outburst and, according to some, never recovered. He died of a heart attack later that year.

Major Works

Adorno's writings strongly reflect his Marxist, anti-fascist, beliefs. From 1942 to 1944 Adorno collaborated with Horkheimer on writing Philosophische Fragmente (Philosophical Fragments; 1944), later translated as Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this work Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the European masses had allowed themselves to be exploited by their leaders, who had substituted the pursuit of power for the pursuit of happiness during the period of fascist power in Europe. In 1950 Adorno published the results of the Institute's Research Project on Social Discrimination under the title The Authoritarian Personality. In the study, about two thousand American citizens were interviewed to establish personality traits and family backgrounds that characterize people who develop racist and anti-democratic views. Adorno also published extensively on music, both books and essays, generally focusing on the social aspects of the art form. In The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) Adorno contrasted Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky as the positive and negative poles of the new music. In Versuch über Wagner (1952) Adorno argued that the music of Richard Wagner helped to inspire the beginnings of National Socialism, which developed into Nazism in Germany. Many of Adorno's essays on music demonstrate his hostility to jazz and other forms of popular music as being a drug employed by the establishment to pacify the exploited masses. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951) is a more personal collection of aphorisms criticizing fascist tendencies in the twentieth century and the materialism of modern industrial civilization. Two major philosophical works of Adorno's later career stand out. In Negative Dialectics (1966) Adorno discussed Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger and their textual reproductions of reality. In his Ästhetische Theorie (1970), which was left unfinished at his death, Adorno argued in favor of a theory of the autonomy of artistic works and explored the connection between art and society.

Critical Reception

While Adorno's writing is considered difficult and at times almost abstract, his ideas on aesthetics, sociology, music, and popular culture have been both admired and excoriated. Many music critics, for example, admit the brilliance of Adorno's observations on classical music but find his work on popular music—in particular jazz—unenlightened and ignorant. Other critics, however, believe that Adorno's writings on jazz and other popular music have been long misinterpreted. Despite his lifelong stance as a vigorous anti-fascist and his strong influence on modern European democratic thought, Adorno came under fire later in his life because of his refusal to take radical political action and because some of his writings on aesthetics and culture were interpreted as overly conservative. European university students frequently protested and stormed the offices of the Frankfort Institute. More recently, Adorno has been restored to his respected place in modern philosophy and sociology, with some critics maintaining that his works are some of the most important of the twentieth century.